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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Waste not, want not

California’s drastic drought has me thinking about the way I use water in my ornamental garden in Massachusetts. Someday I may be forced to change my profligate ways. I’m starting to think sooner would be better than later.
            My earliest gardens were small enough to water with a big watering can or a hose and watering wand.  When I cultivated more ground, I switched to rotating sprinklers.
The biggest negative to that approach was the operator—me. I hate to think how many hundreds of gallons I wasted by forgetting the sprinkler was running. 
            Finally my garden got so big that I moved up to an automatic sprinkler irrigation system controlled by a computer in the basement. The computer doesn’t forget to turn the water off.  It’s programmed to start watering at 3 AM, when the air is cool, but some of the water still evaporates. In retrospect, drip irrigation would have been a more water-saving approach for trees, shrubs, and perennial beds.
            The sprinkler irrigation system uses a lot of water. Comparing water bills before and after we installed it brought me up sharp. I’d tripled our household’s summer water use. I started paring down the water allotted to each irrigation zone, especially the lawn areas, letting the grass turn brown in August.
            We in the eastern US have skewed assumptions about water availability. We’re used to thinking of water as cheap and unlimited, almost like air. That's because the twentieth century was one of our wettest on record. In the future we may be forced to manage with a limited water supply. Using drinking water to irrigate an ornamental garden like mine may become prohibitively expensive or just impossible.
            I wish I’d planted with water conservation in mind, grouping thirsty plants together. Since I didn’t, I’m working on paying more attention to which plants really need supplemental watering. A rain gauge attached to the irrigation system is supposed to prevent automatic watering when rainfall is sufficient. I’d been relying on that and a fixed watering schedule to determine how much water each zone gets every week in the growing season. Established trees and shrubs may not need any extra water, whereas my vegetable garden, annual flowers, and newly planted shrubs and perennials do need regular watering. 
            My plan is to poke a finger in the soil periodically, find out whether it’s actually dry, and see whether plants are drooping. This should allow me to devise a less wasteful watering schedule.
            To this, residents of the Southwest probably say, “Duh!” I’ll catch up eventually.

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